BEST TEAM: UNC
The West’s top five seeds all appear in advanced stats site Kenpom.com’s top 15, making it the deepest region at the top. In fact, all five rank between No. 7 (UNC) and No. 15 (Ohio State). Xavier, the No. 1 seed, ranks 14th. The Tar Heels have the edge over the rest. It’s hard to believe that Wofford visited Chapel Hill and beat this team in December, but the Tar Heels collected themselves and have hit their stride, especially since the beginning of February. Having several key players back from last year’s national championship winner also gives UNC an advantage over the rest of the region.
BEST POTENTIAL MATCHUP: UNC VS. GONZAGA
The rematch of last year’s national championship would come in the regional final, which would make for several intriguing storylines and what should be an exciting game. The Tar Heels would be seeking their third straight championship appearance. Gonzaga, on the other hand, would be after revenge.
BEST BET TO SPRING AN UPSET: SAN DIEGO STATE
The Aztecs came out of nowhere to claim the Mountain West’s automatic bid, winning their last nine games and jumping from No. 79 in Kenpom.com’s rankings to No. 50 in that stretch. They upset Gonzaga — albeit at home — in December, and they recently notched two wins over Nevada, including Friday’s 90-73 rout. Like they were under Steve Fisher, Brian Dutcher’s squad has one of the better defenses in the country. This group is also slightly more efficient offensively than several of Fisher’s NCAA Tournament teams. The Aztecs are better than Houston at guarding without fouling, which could be a key in what should be a grind-it-out, defensive battle.
GO-TO GUY: TREVON BLUIETT, XAVIER
Bluiett established himself as one of the country’s most clutch players last season, when he averaged 25 points and shot 52.2 percent in No. 11-seeded Xavier’s three NCAA Tournament wins. The 6-foot-6 senior guard followed up that performance by leading the Musketeers to the first No. 1 seed in program history. He has averaged 19.5 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game and scored efficiently from all over the floor. Don’t be surprised if you see Bluiett on the AP All-America First Team in a few weeks.
BEST COACHING MATCHUP: OHIO STATE VS. SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
Ohio State parted ways with Thad Matta last summer because there was seemingly no hope the roster he had assembled could accomplish much this season. Enter Chris Holtmann, who led the Buckeyes to 24 wins and a No. 5 seed after similarly revitalizing Butler in 2014-15 with an unexpected tournament appearance. T.J. Otzelberger, meanwhile, has taken South Dakota State to two straight Big Dances in his first two seasons as a head coach.
BEST GUARD/PLAYMAKER: JOEL BERRY, UNC
Berry won’t wow viewers with his athleticism. He’s also just 6-foot, so he’s on the small side. But when all is said and done, Berry will go down as one of UNC’s best guards of all time. The Tar Heels have made the last two Final Fours — winning last year’s championship — with him as the floor general, and they are a serious title threat once again. Berry has averaged 17.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game this year.
BEST BIG MAN: MORITZ WAGNER, MICHIGAN
Texas A&M has a pair of talented bigs in Robert Williams and Tyler Davis, but Wagner gets the nod here because of his offensive versatility. The 6-11 German has averaged 14.5 points and 7.1 rebounds per game and shot 52.9 percent from the field and 39.6 percent from deep. Michigan tends to have a balanced offensive attack, but Wagner has shown an ability to explode. He has scored 20 or more points eight times, including a season-high 27 in a January win over Michigan State.
BEST PLAYER YOU’VE NEVER HEARD OF: MIKE DAUM, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
South Dakota State famously discovered Daum by chance, when the unknown prep player from Kimball, Nebraska, hit 12 3-pointers against an AAU team featuring one of the country’s top recruits. What a fortuitous discovery it was. Daum has been one of the best, most underappreciated players in the country ever since he became a Jackrabbit. The 6-9 forward has averaged 23.8 points and 10.4 rebounds per game this season, shooting 46.2 percent from the field and 42.1 percent from three. Daum hasn’t just bullied inferior Summit League competition. He scored 26 in a win at Ole Miss and averaged 28.7 points against NCAA Tournament teams Kansas (21), Buffalo (34) and Wichita State (31).
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